The need to communicate is instinctive. The development of language is fundamental to that need to communicate; it supports and enhances our thinking and understanding. Language permeates the world in which we live; it is socially constructed and dependent on the number and nature of our social interactions and relationships.
The learning process simultaneously involves learning language—as learners listen to and use language with others in their everyday lives; learning about language—as learners grow in their understanding of how language works; and learning through language—as learners use language as a tool to listen, think, discuss and reflect on information, ideas and issues (Halliday 1980). An appreciation of these aspects of language learning may help teachers better understand and enhance students’ learning. However, these three aspects are so inextricably linked they are best not thought of as discrete processes.
Language plays a vital role in the construction of meaning. It empowers the learner and provides an intellectual framework to support conceptual development and critical thinking. In the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), it is recognized that the teaching of language should be in response to the previous experience, needs and interests of the student, rather than the consequence of a predetermined, prescriptive model for delivering language. Learners’ needs are best served when they have opportunities to engage in learning within meaningful contexts, rather than being presented with the learning of language as an incremental series of skills to be acquired.
The complex processes involved in language learning represent a series of developmental continuums. A teacher is able to identify where on those continuums a student is positioned to better design appropriate, contextualized learning experiences—to move the student from one development phase to the next. In this way, the learner is able to build on established skills and understanding, while being supported to meet appropriate challenges to extend their learning within their “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky 1999), which may be represented by more than one phase.